Friday, June 5, 2015

My lighthousekeeper ancestor

When my great grandfather, Thomas Gadsden, arrived in Natal on the barque Priscilla in 1863, there was no lighthouse on the Bluff – the wooded promontory which sheltered the harbour of Port Natal, later named D’Urban.

Despite numerous shipwrecks in the area, especially during the settler ship era of the 1850s, and the pleas of the town’s inhabitants, no beacon had yet been erected as an aid to navigation. Whether Thomas noticed the lack of a light on the Bluff in the early days of his arrival is not recorded, and in any case his priority at that stage was to find gainful employment. He acquired the position of turnkey at the Durban gaol, probably not a well-paid occupation and certainly without much job satisfaction. It seems likely that Thomas would look around in the hope of more suitable employment.

The British colonial government finally overcame its reluctance to provide a lighthouse for the Port and the foundation stone was laid on 22 November 1864. However, with various delays impeding progress, it wasn’t until two years later that the structure was completed in October 1866. During that time, Thomas had undoubtedly become acquainted with the famous Port Captain, William Bell, whose daughter Eliza Ann would later be Thomas’s wife, and there must have been many an unofficial discussion on the topic of the new lighthouse.  Whether Thomas went through normal bureaucratic government channels, making application for the position of lightkeeper, with his father-in-law to be putting in a good word for him, or whether Bell had more influence in the matter, is uncertain. There’s no question that Thomas’s future looked much brighter: he would have a reasonable and regular salary and an extra perquisite in the shape of a keeper’s cottage.

Opening of the Bluff Lighthouse 1866

As far as we know, Thomas had no experience of lighthousekeeping, though he may have had some maritime knowledge which would come in handy. His mother Mary Ann Gadsden had been part-owner of at least one vessel, the Susan, which is on record as having been involved in a collision with another ship on a voyage between Liverpool and Waterford, Ireland, in the 1830s.  In any case, as soon as Thomas was appointed as keeper of the Bluff lighthouse he would be given very detailed instructions as to what was expected of him. He would soon discover that lighthousekeeping was no sinecure.

At that time, Natal was a fledgling colony, its population diminished in numbers since a downturn in the economy during the 1860s had led to some of the settlers of the Byrne years leaving for fresh pastures in Australia, or even returning to England. The town was still a straggle of unpaved streets and most houses were of wattle and daub, tough some public buildings, such as the Court House, were of stone.

The Bluff was sparsely populated, densely wooded and inaccessible other than by boat across from the Point or via a track constructed by Richard Godden for conveying building materials. Therefore, the lighthousekeeper would not be in easy reach of such civilization as existed below in the town of Durban. Provisions of all kinds would have to be brought by boat and then hauled up the steep hill to be offloaded at the lighthouse. Another serious matter was the lack of fresh water, which also had to be carried in barrels for the use of the keeper and his family. Thomas wrote to the authorities in some distress concerning the water problem. It would not be completely resolved for some time and would have drastic results for one of Thomas’s children, Phillip, who died in infancy of typhoid (a water-borne disease rife in the Colony until well into the twentieth century).

Hunting was good, the Bluff being home to various species of buck as well as monkeys, birds and other wildlife. The sea was at Thomas’s doorstep and like most keepers he would have spent some of his spare time fishing.

View of Durban and the Bay from the Bluff, as Thomas Gadsden would have seen it.

Unfortunately, Thomas left us no written record of his years as keeper, though gradually a picture has been built up of what his life must have been like. It was in many ways idyllic, looking out over the beautiful Bay with its continual stream of shipping, happy with his lovely wife and their growing children and kept busy with his duties. His brother-in-law, Douglas Bell, became Assistant Keeper for some years. The keepers worked in shifts and there was plenty for them both to do, keeping the equipment maintained and everything shipshape and well-polished. Failure to keep the light burning throughout each night would result in instant dismissal.

How Eliza Ann adjusted to the somewhat isolated life, near the town but not of it, is not clear. The shock of losing her eldest child, Phillip, must have been severe, though infant mortality at the time was generally high. She had two further sons and two daughters, but like most mothers never forgot her lost first-born.  We know of his existence only through his baptismal record in the St Paul’s register. From the time of Phillip’s death Eliza Ann’s health slowly deteriorated and Thomas, anxious about her, began to suffer from stress.

The constant night watches took their toll on Thomas's own health and he made several applications to be removed from his lighthouse duties and be given other employment.
After an argument with the then Port Captain, Alexander Airth (William Bell had died in 1869) Thomas was dismissed from his post. He pleaded to be reinstated, writing that he and his wife and children were reduced to living in a tent on the Bluff.

His plea went unheard. This disaster took a further toll on Eliza Ann’s health. Eliza Ann’s widowed mother was in no position to assist the little family as she had been left in straitened circumstances after Bell’s death: George Cato, Bell’s old friend from Cape sailing days, continued to pay Bell’s salary to his widow until her own death.

Records show that Thomas’s position changed to that of Timekeeper for the Harbour Board and he remained in that post until his death on 25 October 1893 at the age of 54.

Eliza Ann survived him by seven years. Their eldest son William married, had a daughter and died of enteric at Verulam in 1900 in his early twenties. Of the other siblings Faith and Hope both married, and Sydney Bartle was the only one of Thomas's children to continue the Natal Gadsden line, with the appearance in 1910 of William Bell Gadsden, named for Eliza Ann's father, the Port Captain. 

The lighthouse remained as Thomas Gadsden knew it until July 1922, when improved optical apparatus was introduced. Some ten years later came the installation of electricity, and the iron tower, considered by then to be unsafe, was encased in concrete. After seventy three years in service, the old Bluff Light shone for the last time on 15 October 1940 and the following June the lighthouse was demolished. 

No comments: